Why the National Question Matters to the Left

Jean-Numa Ducange

Karl Marx famously wrote that “the workers have no country” — but he immediately added that they had to become “the leading class in the nation.” For over a century, the Left has struggled to reconcile the two ideas.

For over a century, the “national question” has inspired a great deal of reflection on the Left. (Jorge Gil / Europa Press via Getty Images)

Interview by
Adrian Thomas

When French prime minister Élisabeth Borne stood up in parliament to push through her controversial pension reform, MPs from the left-wing France Insoumise reacted in a way that their counterparts in many European countries wouldn’t — that is, by singing the national anthem. Unlike Britain’s dismal “God Save the King,” France’s thundering “La Marseillaise” is at least a song rooted in revolution — or more precisely, in revolutionary war. But its strident patriotism means it surely isn’t beloved by all left-wingers, even in France.

The Left’s relationship with patriotism and national identity has no single “solution” — not least given that it doesn’t mean the same things in all countries. Socialists in liberal democracies in the imperial core can hardly address the problem in the same way as parties leading the armed resistance to colonial occupation. Yet, the “national question” has surely inspired a great deal of reflection on the Left, producing different schools of thought that provide insight into the problem today.

Jean-Numa Ducange is a historian of the socialist movement, with a particular focus on France and German-speaking countries. His recent book, Quand la Gauche pensait la Nation (When the Left Reflected on the Nation), discusses how socialists at the turn of the twentieth century thought about the “national” dimension of their politics and how it fit together with their proclaimed internationalism.

He spoke to Lava Media’s Adrian Thomas about how the Left has grappled with the national question — and why it’s still a problem today.

Adrian Thomas

All over Europe, nationalists have the wind in their sails. They saturate the media with fantasy visions of national identity, indeed with some success. The Left seems clueless on this point. For many on the far left, singing the national anthem or waving the flag seems outdated, even suspect of conservative leanings. So, starting from its origins, what actually is the nation — and where does this concept come from?

Jean-Numa Ducange

It is a very old concept that has been through many major upheavals, up to the present. In France, it is usually said that the “nation” was a left-wing theme after the Revolution of 1789 and gradually swung to the right during the nineteenth century with the rise of nationalism. “Vive la nation” was the common rallying cry of the revolutionaries of 1789, over and above other points that might divide them. This was the birth of the idea of a political nation, theoretically open to all nationalities, and which was above all based on a political pact, against monarchs and against any ethnic outlook.

In fact, many historians have shown that the French “nation” is less open than it might seem. Some revolutionaries had a strictly French outlook, linked to the history of a people rooted in a circumscribed piece of territory. But, for many actors — and important revolutionary movements around the world in the nineteenth century — speaking about the nation meant human and political progress.

This may seem an overly French-centric perspective. But the national idea long retained a progressive character for many peoples subject to foreign oppression. This applies to a large part of this historical period. Above all, the nation is not a fixed concept defined once and for all time: from a socialist viewpoint, it is originally a largely “bourgeois” construct, but which could take on a progressive character, depending on the circumstances.

The nation does not have the same meaning when closely linked to a revolutionary process as it does when it is the product of reactionary forces. One of the big questions is the place of the nation faced with supranational bodies (either meaning empires or more recent structures such as the European Union). Who can defend the nation in these circumstances and in the name of what?

These great questions have lost none of their present-day relevance: and even today, there is no consensus on this point among the forces of the radical left (from communists to ex-communists who remain to the left of social democracy…).

Adrian Thomas

What place did Karl Marx give to the nation? Didn’t he write in the Communist Manifesto that the “workers have no country”?

Jean-Numa Ducange

Marx did not give any clear definition of the nation, nor set some strategic plan that would have allowed socialists and communists to say “Marx said that in such-and-such instance, we should support national demands,” etc. He took a kind of case-by-case approach — for instance, backing the demands of oppressed Poland — and granted the question greater or lesser importance depending on the period he was writing. For instance, in the case of l’Algérie française — Algeria, conquered by France from 1830 onward — he was, like many socialists at the time, initially convinced of the benefits of colonization.

But he evolved on this question and became increasingly aware of the specific fate of non-European peoples. From Kevin Anderson to Marcello Musto, many recent researchers have shown that in later life, Marx adopted an ever more multilinear reading of history, abandoning the idea that the development of human history would basically have to be fought and won in Europe.

As for the famous line in the Manifesto that the “workers have no country,” I’d observe that what he says in this text is quite a lot more nuanced when we consider the whole passage. More precisely, he said, “The working men have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got. Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word.”

So, if we cite only the first part, we are emphasizing that the workers’ lack of country is the main perspective, also for the future: the abolition of borders ought to be encouraged, and the development of capitalism should lead us there. But if we bring in the second part of the same passage, which explicitly talks about standing for the nation, but in a manner different to the bourgeois sense, then the perspective is changed.

Reading Marx’s work more broadly, I think that he never really envisages the abolition of nations, pure and simple. Rather, he wanted an end to the hostility among nations. He left Marxists many questions still to resolve: When and in what circumstances can they defend the nation? And how far should they go, in terms of their political alliances, to justify a common front within a national framework?

Marx did not elaborate on this point, because he didn’t consider this question to be of such pivotal importance. It was leaders of the subsequent generations that took up this question: [Joseph] Stalin, Leon Trotsky, Karl Renner, Otto Bauer, Jean Jaurès, to name just a few.

The Left’s idea of the nation has varied a great deal. It was a central focus during the Belle Époque (1871–1914), both with Jaurès in France and in Central Europe. The German and Austro-Hungarian socialists were particularly concerned with this issue. For Jaurès in France, amor patria was above discussion: he deeply loved his country, its culture, and its language, which he often praised in lusty tones. But he never had an exclusivist or “racial” conception of the nation.

In his 1911 work The New Army, he closely linked the nation and internationalism: “A little internationalism takes us away from the homeland; a lot of internationalism brings us closer to it.” Loyalty to one’s own country was combined with a defense of internationalism. For Jaurès, France meant the homeland of the Revolution and of the Republic. A historian of the years from 1789–94, he identified with the “patriots” of this period who stood opposed to the “aristocrats.” As for the German-speaking countries, there the picture was rather different. The year 1871 was the moment when German unification was finally achieved. But apart from the fact that Germany was now a political as well as geographic reality, there remained the question of minority peoples whose rights had not been recognized.

The same goes for countries entirely dominated by some other people. In their case, there was a strong determination to assert their national rights, often taking greater prominence than social questions, thus posing powerful challenges to socialists.

We can take the Czechs as an example. Today, they are gathered in one, independent country. At the time of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Czechs were attached to its Austrian part and had no specific recognition of their nationhood. Yet the Czechs comprised a large number of workers, who were present in various industrial cities. At first, German was the lingua franca; Czech was also learned, but this was relatively little raised as a political issue. But linguistic and national demands gained strength, to the point of sparking conflicts with German-speaking workers.

This was one reason why the Austrians (so-called “Austro-Marxists”) wrote a lot about questions of nationality: essentially, they had no choice but to do so and had to offer some perspectives to these various peoples. But this also defined a wider current of thought and politics, which resulted in a striking number of Marxist studies and analysis, stretching up till the early 1930s.

To stick to the nationalities question — and simplifying things hugely — their vision was the following: faced with the multinational reality of the Habsburg Empire, they proposed a “personal autonomy,” meaning, the possibility to have one’s “national” rights recognized by the state, without the state being synonymous with any one nation. In the context of Austria-Hungary, this notably meant a recognition of the rights of Czechs, but without their collective secession.

The socialists thus hoped to avoid the creation of many little nation-states, which they considered unviable. These principles inspired some compromises at the time, especially in Moravia (part of the modern-day Czech Republic). World War I cast aside all these efforts, but there were interesting initiatives close to these ideas, such as the “Balkan Federation”: a sort of supranational body that would make it possible to avoid “Balkanization” (a word that entered everyday language to refer to wars and fragmentation). Some more concrete and long-lasting political systems drew inspiration from these ideas, such as Yugoslavia.

Sometimes we read that the current system in Belgium (which recognizes the specificities of both French- and Dutch-speakers) is inspired by these ideas. For me there are indeed some family resemblances, but we shouldn’t ever forget that the Austro-Marxists were… Marxists!

The fight for nationalities’ rights had to be linked to the social and class struggle. They thought that because of the contradictions that capitalism generates it would be incapable of resolving the problem.

Adrian Thomas

Fundamentally, isn’t this idealizing centralization? Do working-class people have more interest in living in big (pluri-)national units, like the German Social Democracy (SPD) once envisaged with its talk of “Greater Germany” (i.e., including all German speakers), or else in small, more coherent states, as suggested by the principle of national self-determination?

Jean-Numa Ducange

Well beyond the SPD, the idea that proletarians have more interest living in larger imperial or national spaces was very widespread still at the beginning of the twentieth century. The logic was: there is nothing to be gained from an ever-greater number of small states, which amount to so many divisions in the working class.

Hence many militants’ attachment to the idea of “Greater Germany,” a project that can obviously shock us today, given that this greater Germany is connected to the Nazi project for Anschluss (Adolf Hitler’s annexation of Austria to Germany in 1938). But there was an old “Greater-German” project, that had emerged from the revolution of 1848, which sought, in essence, to create a vast German-speaking territory, which some imagined on the model of the French Republic.

For her part, Rosa Luxemburg considered illusory the demand for the independence of Poland, at the time split between Russia, Germany, and Austria. Why, Luxemburg asked, should socialists waste proletarians’ time building up new borders? She thought that backing Polish independence would oblige the Polish workers’ parties to ally with other, “bourgeois” forces, or even reactionary ones, over this question. Hence her rejection of this demand.

This priority placed on larger units was also widespread among Austro-Marxist perspectives, and the French did not necessarily distance themselves from such an outlook either, even though generally they showed little interest for pluri-national approaches, rather alien to their own situation.

Adrian Thomas

But after World War I, the rejection of “social-chauvinism” — as the Social Democrats’ nationalist turn was called — was at the basis of the Communist Parties’ creation. The notion of the patrie — the homeland — seems to have fallen into disgrace after the great bloodbath of 1914–18.

Jean-Numa Ducange

Yes, indeed; one of the explanations for Bolshevism’s great success from 1917 onward was its rejection of chauvinism. There was a powerful rejection of “brainwashing” and war propaganda, and social democrats were associated with this horror because they had almost all backed their own states’ war efforts in summer 1914. So, it is no surprise that in the young Communist Parties there was a visceral repudiation of all patriotism and of any national reference points. The nation — well, it was in its name that men had been called on to massacre their neighbors…

Recently I have been working on the foundation and development of the Communist Parties of Germany and Austria in 1918–20. These young organizations — especially in Austria — at first rallied a minority wing of the workers’ movement and were driven by a radical internationalism that led them to think that a “Red Mitteleuropa,” a sort of USSR on the scale of central and eastern Europe, was within reach.

We know about Luxemburg’s strongly anti-nationalist positions, but in this era, some went even further than her, advocating for a workers’ movement that was “anti-national” both in principle and in practice. Even if we ignore this extreme wing, it is clear that the communist internationalism at the origin of these parties tended to reject the nation, except in the case of oppressed peoples who still had to go though the national stage (the application of the “national right to self-determination”) to get rid of occupying powers.

Even the French Communist movement of the early years — even though it made its first steps in a country that had emerged victorious from World War I and where there was a strong sense of national belonging given the republican order — took a critical view of patriotism. The members of the young French Communist Party (PCF) did not want to sing “La Marseillaise” and refused to commemorate the French Revolution, a “bourgeois” revolution that had nothing to do with the proletariat: room had to be made for 1917 and the future belonged to Sovietism, which, even insofar as it respected national cultures, no longer intended to make reference to the nations of old.

But what had applied in 1918–20 very soon changed. In Germany, 1923 was the final year when a large-scale revolutionary movement shook the country. At the beginning of that year, French and Belgian troops marched into the industrial Ruhr region to demand the payment of war reparations. Now, Germany was part-occupied by a foreign army. Did this make Berlin the capital of an oppressed country? It was a debate that ran through the Communist International.

Some Communists advocated national resistance against the occupier, while others challenged this line. But this did show one thing: the Communist movement could not dodge the imperative to take a stance on the national question, which was constantly posed. Ten years later in 1935, when the Communist International drove the turn toward “People’s Fronts,” the Communist Parties radically changed their perspective: now, the PCF sang “La Marseillaise” and reappropriated the legacy of 1789, contradicting its arguments from the 1920s. Left-wing minorities were deeply wounded by this change of attitude.

This turn even intensified during World War II, with the resistance against the Nazi occupier: France was, in turn, somehow in the position of an oppressed country. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the PCF above all presented itself as “the” great national party that defended the country’s independence and sovereignty; some socialists and far-left militants accused it of chauvinism, especially on colonial questions.

This was an excessive way of framing things, if we compare all this to the French population as a whole: the parts of society influenced by the PCF were more internationalist and less chauvinist than the norm, especially compared to the conservative forces who — lest we forget — continued to structurally influence political life.

Adrian Thomas

Didn’t part of the Socialist movement stray into support for war and colonialism, precisely because of an imperialist turn in its idea of the nation? For instance, in Belgium we could cite the case of Émile Vandervelde.

Jean-Numa Ducange

Among the leadership groups of the various parties in the pre-1914 Socialist International, there was indeed an orientation clearly favorable toward the colonial endeavor. There were left-wing minorities, notably around [Vladimir] Lenin and Luxemburg, that challenged this, but doubtless they were isolated.

The idea that it was necessary to reform colonial empires in a more humanistic sense, but without really questioning their foundations, was very widespread: Vandervelde condemned the “wrong kind” of colonization. He had a certain humanistic dimension: he was well able to condemn colonial crimes but not, more fundamentally, the structural system of colonial domination.

This was at the heart of the contradictions in Belgium’s Parti Ouvrier (Workers’ Party): the Congo question was then one of the great issues in debate within the party. This was quite widespread at the time: Eduard Bernstein in Germany and, for a long time, someone like Jaurès in France, were convinced that there was a certain hierarchy of peoples, and they developed a sort of “colonial socialism” which did not imagine the colonized peoples becoming independent.

I think this is also one of the reasons for the international success of Communism from 1919 onward; Lenin had well understood that the twentieth century would be the century of anti-colonial struggles and that the Communists had to fight for the independence of the oppressed countries, even if this required sometimes broad alliances riddled with dangers. Was it necessary to ally with certain bourgeois or nationalist parties, against the colonizer? For their part, the Social Democrats, or at least many of their leaders, had absolutely not seen this development coming.

So rather than speak of a “turn” (which would imply that there had been a clearly anti-imperialist position to start with) it is necessary to distinguish between the opposed lines within the socialist movement from its origins, which do not necessarily overlap with other dividing lines. By that I mean that not all reformists were pro-colonialist, and not all revolutionaries anti-colonialist…

The French example is telling on this score. We know the famous expression “French Algeria,” which brings to mind the slogan of the nationalist far right who wanted to keep Algeria as a French territory. When we talk about the 1950s partisans of “French Algeria,” clearly that’s who we mean. We think of the Organisation armée secrète (OAS), a far-right organization who organized terrorist attacks, especially against leaders of the anti-colonial left. But the expression existed already in the 1830s and ’40s, and was openly embraced and used by many “utopian socialists” (for example, Charles Fourier and the fouriéristes). Many people today have a soft spot for these “utopians” and sing their praises as against Marxist “scientific socialism” — but they totally forget this element of their worldview!

Indeed, the utopian horizon of these early socialists was often colonial: the projects they worked up for alternative societies were often accompanied with an open orientalism, which saw these African “new territories” as the El Dorado where they could try out their social experiments. Eighty years later, the French Socialists divided over the colonial question: in 1912, a certain Lucien Deslinières presented a bill on “Socialist Morocco” to parliament in the name of the Socialist group of MPs. The idea consisted of sending “good,” socialist French settlers to explain to the natives how they ought to seek development. This was a typical “left-wing” colonialist approach.

But, this bill was ultimately withdrawn thanks to the intervention of Jaurès, who considered it outrageous. His position on this question had evolved since the 1880s: he had now become a fierce critic of the colonial order.

But this project was long supported by Jules Guesde, even though it was he who did most to introduce Marxism to France. Certainly, some early French Marxists like Édouard Vaillant were already brilliant critics of the colonial order. But on this point, Jaurès was much more critical of colonialism than others, even though outwardly they were more left-wing on other topics.

It would take the creation of the Communist International in 1919 before there was a clearly anti-colonial position. Then, from the 1930s, the same problem arose once more. The turn toward the People’s Front, and the broad alliances it involved, obliged the PCF to mute its anti-colonialism.

Adrian Thomas

Chaim Zhitlowsky, a Russian Jewish socialist exiled in Switzerland, seems to have tried to define an intermediate position. In 1899, he wrote in one German journal you cite that “[w]hile cosmopolitanism finds its ideal in the disappearance of national differences and understands humanity as a conglomerate of single individuals, internationalism is based on the idea of fraternization among peoples, which does not mean that one brother must be identical to another like peas in a pod.” Is this a tenable line to follow, on the national question?

Jean-Numa Ducange

I’m not necessarily word-for-word in agreement with that, but the basic insight seems right to me. Internationalism doesn’t mean denying the existence of nations and national cultures. Of course, these are always historical constructs, but their longevity and continuity mean they do structurally influence individuals’ daily lives. To try and overlook them, in favor of declarations which — while generous-spirited and fraternal — are totally disconnected from the realities of whole sections of the working classes, does not allow us to move forward and thus leaves the field open to others.

We could hardly adopt Zhitlowsky’s early-twentieth-century attack on “cosmopolitanism,” a line which today has strongly right-wing and even antisemitic connotations. But any attempt to automatically take the opposite position to nationalists — which at first glance may seem a laudable approach — ends up advocating ideas with an only limited circulation and which are not compatible with the effective practice of sovereignty in general, or of popular sovereignty more particularly.

There is an abundant literature on popular and/or national sovereignty, and in this context we can theoretically discuss what national borders can and should mean today. But I think that in terms of concrete practices, social and political change requires a series of situated and identifiable actions involving de facto relatively restricted mobilities, and rootedness in a given workplace, city, and so on.

For instance, in the English-speaking world (and to a lesser extent in other countries, including France), there is a renewed interest in workers’ councils and how they developed after 1918 (the Soviets in Russia of course, the Biennio Rosso in Italy, the Rätebewegung in the German-speaking countries, and so on). In some cases, these councils posed the concrete question of workers’ power, of workers’ control of the tools of production, etc. All this implied collective mobilization and a geographically situated militancy involving regular meetings in the same place.

Put like that, it sounds like a rather banal point. But I am struck at seeing how much some people try and cast aside this territorial dimension (which therefore raises questions about the place where power and concrete, “national,” “popular” sovereignty, relying on local roots, can be exercised).

In the age of the digital revolution, it may be argued that a growing number of jobs are being completely de-territorialized. But apart from the fact that manual and blue-collar jobs remain a reality, even if one that part of the Left seems to mostly forget, many jobs that are largely dependent on IT are often linked to situated, collective labor (offices with the obligatory presence of employees for at least part of the week, etc.). So, the celebration of permanent mobility by a certain kind of Left contradicts certain basic realities, and this even apart from the fact that it seems to me to be an illusory claim with regard to a large part of the workforce, given the multiple imperatives of capitalism.

This helps turn important layers of the population away from what this Left says, and for these latter to find greater relevance in a nostalgic-reactionary discourse celebrating the so-called rooted common people. Such people find these latter claims closer to their concerns and to their feeling of dispossession. So, yes, I think that we need an “intermediate” position: one maintaining an internationalist perspective of the union of peoples and that thinks as much as possible about our common, universal destiny, but also asserting that concrete political practice (especially a socialist one) has to be carried out at a level that corresponds to populations’ real horizons. For a very large proportion of the popular layers, this horizon is surely still a national one.

Adrian Thomas

How today would you find a Marxist path through the dilemmas of nationalism and internationalism, borders and free movement, national sovereignty and globalization (or Europeanization), integration (or even assimilation) and multiculturalism?

Jean-Numa Ducange

These questions must be answered starting from the concrete situation in order to arrive at a proper balance. You may tell me I’m dodging the question. Not at all. Let’s briefly go back to what Lenin said about the nation: to support the national endeavor in an imperialist country (France, Great Britain, Germany, etc.) was reactionary and implied a de facto alignment of the workers’ movement with the bourgeoisie, especially in case of war. On the other hand, Lenin supported the national demands of oppressed countries, especially the colonized peoples.

On questions of sovereignty, a subtle position is needed. But at a more general level, I think that we are coming to an end of a cycle with regard to free movement, which the radical left has long perceived as an ideal unto itself.

To reclaim politics and defend social rights, there is, it seems to me, a need to “territorialize” politics. The impressive development of different forms of mobility over the last half-century had long led to the opposite belief. We will never go back to the previous positions, which would be a reactionary idea, in the original sense of the word. But the fight for emancipation cannot do without a concrete framework, a concrete location.

I would like to illustrate these differences between national situations by briefly comparing Western Europe and China. For ten years, I have been developing scholarly exchanges with Chinese researchers on the history of socialism and its various paths in history. These scholars often asked me about French (and European) Communists’ relationship to the market, EU integration, and the nation. For many of them, reticence toward the European project seemed rather hard to understand: they see us (the European countries) as having strong national specificities but now inevitably forming a continental bloc, which must position itself for multilateralism on an international scale.

Similarly, globalization does not have the same meaning, for China played the card of the market and globalization for its development, albeit in a largely controlled manner and under the authority of the state. In France, globalization has meant a challenge to many aspects of its national model. National sovereignty has been fiercely defended in China, even as its global trade was developing at an incredible speed.

All this would of course require a more precise discussion of each of the issues at stake; but it does show that we cannot a priori define a simple and uniform set of answers. All the more reason to revive the original internationalism, which especially implied exchanges between various national experiences.

One last point, on the question of “multiculturalism.” If we remain at a very general level, we may think that “multiculturalism” is a positive thing in itself: the recognition of rights, of the diversity of cultures, and so on. Some even see a family resemblance with Austro-Marxism.

At a certain level of generality, no one will deny the difference of cultures and the need to preserve them. But in practice, one must take into account national realities, the dynamics of assimilation, and dynamics of integration, which have not all been negative — far from it. In the twentieth century, trade unions and left-wing parties played an assimilating role for many immigrants through their struggles and their activities in the workplace, for example in France. This went together with the structuring of a class consciousness.

It is totally naive to believe, as some multiculturalists say, that reality has changed and that any kind of “assimilation” has become reactionary, etc. To have a socialist perspective, it is necessary to create something in common, to “make a people.”

Once again, the balance is hard to find. But the exaltation of all specificities, all differences — apart from the fact that they are sometimes ambivalent and that conservatives can equally well stand for that, in the sense “to each his own religion, his own particularities, etc.” — stand at odds with a real perspective of liberation.